The mystery of Rupert Brooke's tin box

The German occupying forces in the Antwerp region were desperately looking for a tin box during the First World War. The mystery goes back some 100 years, but is still fascinating historians. The box belonged to Britain's Rupert Brooke, who was part of the British troops that came to assist Belgian soldiers. The tin box contains a number of poems, but it still remains a mystery why the Germans were so anxious to recover it. The story was highlighted by Thursday's edition of Gazet van Antwerpen, with local amateur historian Willy Jacobs launching an appeal.
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Heavy German bombardments led to the fall of Antwerp in early October.

The famous British poet and soldier Rupert Brooke probably arrived in the Antwerp region on Sunday 4 October 1914, coming from Ostend in a double-decker bus. This was concluded using letters that Brooke and others wrote at the time.

He was sent to the area of Oude God (south of the city of Antwerp) and a nearby castle, Ten Dorpe or maybe Cantecroy. "While hundreds of soldiers had to find a place to sleep in the park, their British officers held a candlelight dinner in the empty castle", the Belgian amateur historian Willy Jacobs told Gazet van Antwerpen.

It was in the first week of October that the German siege of the Antwerp strongholds intensified. Brooke and his fellow soldiers had to retreat and eventually flee the Antwerp area as the city was about to fall. "He probably lost his luggage in the chaos", explains Jacobs. (photo below shows the improvised bridge across the Scheldt to allow people to reach the west bank and escape to the Waasland area).

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"The Germans have it now. Damn it"

On Christmas Day 1914, Brooke wrote a letter to his (powerful) American friend Russell Loines, explaining he had put his war experiences on paper, but that he had lost his manuscripts in Antwerp, together with his luggage. "The Germans have it now. It was a tin box with - damn it - a lot of my manuscript", he is cited by Gazet van Antwerpen.

The mystery surrounding the tin box remains. "What we do know for sure, is that the Germans started an intensive search in the summer of 1917 to find the box", explains Jacobs. On 5 July 1917, the German occupying forces in Boechout issued a written order to look for a tin box, "eine Metallkassette mit einer Reihe von Manuskripten."  

The order was probably the result of previous diplomatic and military contacts between Berlin and the United States, possibly initiated by Liones. The United States only declared war against Germany in April 1917. For the rest, the mystery remains: has the tin box ever been found, and why exactly did the Germans make this effort to recover it?

"I would like to launch an appeal: is there anyone who knows more about this story? Are there any clues to be found in local municipalities in the Waasland or Antwerp area? Or maybe in American or German archives?" asks Willy Jacobs.

Rupert Brooke died in April 1915 at the age of 27, on a ship at the Greek island of Skyros. By that time, he had made fame with his idealistic war sonnets written during the Great War, especially "The Soldier". Described as a handsome young man, he was a well-known character in England. Brooke has a statue in Rugby, the city in Warwickshire where he was born.